When I accepted a posting to Central African Republic (CAR) in 2018, a friend asked what I had done wrong to be sent here. From what I had heard, the road ahead seemed like it would be a long one.
I worked in Bertoua in the East of Cameroon in 2016, with refugees from CAR. At the time, I made a mental note not to accept a posting here, were it ever to be an option, because of the horror stories I heard.
I had no expectations whatsoever, the predominant feeling was uncertainty. These are my last days here and I am uncertain how I managed to last for 21 months! It has been quite the roller coaster and those curves have been just like the sharp twists and turns of an actual roller coaster.
Central African Republic celebrated its' 60th year of independence on August 13th 2020 which got me reflecting. To give a back ground to things, in 2013, a mostly Muslim coalition violently ousted the government. Some months later, a Christian militia sprung up to resist the Muslim group. It went further as the Christian group carried out attacks around the West of the country against Muslim communities. This degenerated and clashes between groups and against civilians continues to raise concerns. About 80% of the country is controlled by armed groups and attacks against civilians are still recurrent.
A peace agreement was signed in 2019 between the government and 14 armed groups, but the road to implementing and respecting this agreement is a long one.
If you look at the map above, I've indicated where the office is (red arrow) and my area of responsibility (AoR) which consists of two regions (blue dots) Ouham and Ouham Pende. I work in the West of the country. It takes two days to get to certain parts of my AoR, and I mean on off/dirt roads so mileage has nothing to do with the amount of time we spend on the road, depending on how bad the road is. There are tarred roads in the some parts of the capital (Bangui - violet dot) and in Bouar where I live, but elsewhere, that is not the case. Travelling around in this country is a time you spend bumping up and down in a vehicle.
I work for the International Committee of the Red Cross, whose mandate is linked to conflict/war. So we work in places with extreme conditions with so many risks. While travelling in CAR, there is no guarantee of safety. We rely on the networking we do for our safety and do not travel with escorts. Colleagues have been attacked, robbed, kidnapped and unfortunately, killed sometimes. Our security in my AoR falls under my responsibility, so I take the networking pretty seriously! There is also the risk of women getting raped, so there are certain measures in place to 'help'. We are provided with post rape kits for field trips. I know that sounds pretty grim.
People travel around mostly with motor bikes here and you could find up to 5 people on a bike. I still can't wrap my head around how they do it. You see how they sometimes struggle to keep the balance. The few cars that ply the routes are fully loaded, you get a new perspective on how much weight a car can carry.
This is what serves as school structures all around the villages. But at the time of year (rainy season) when I took the photos, it was impossible to have classes. The overgrown bushes prevent passage and these structures are unable to protect the pupils and teachers from the rain.
|These logs serve as seats|
Wondered about my accommodation on the field? This is what it looks like, as basic as can be. And in this part of the country, there is no electricity, phone network or running water. As there is no electricity, people have solar panels to charge torches, radios and some basic appliances. When I travel to certain parts, I am completely cut off from the world.
Sanitary conditions? Here you go! I am not sparing you any details. And this is decent, I've been in worse!
Food? They eat a lot of swallow (as we call it in Nigeria) here. They call it la boule. They eat this every day, all day! They are happy to eat it dry with meat, which is very different from Nigeria.
|La boule, rice, chicken and spinach...there was no beans on this day|
When I am on the field, I always insist that we find some form of vegetables where possible, there is not a lot in my AoR, nor are there fruits. Most of the time, the best I get is beans so I eat a lot of rice and beans. On some days, when I've had enough, I feast on my cereal bars, crackers or garri 😀 I always have garri and groundnuts with me, it's always a welcome change...Nigerians would appreciate this one!
I wrote about food in this post In Search of Mangoes.
During these field trips, I take time to interact with people and understand what their everyday lives look like.
In villages, you'll find women pounding millet, then they sieve it to get the powder. Then pound again until it is all in powder form. A lot of hard work goes into this, it could take up to two days. They make it into la boule or a they make a porridge from it. I asked to buy some but they refused and were offering me for free. That didn't sit well with me so I offered the women 2,000fcfa each. Their reaction was priceless. I left with so many good wishes.
As we left, the driver kept telling me that I would not understand how much I had helped them.
We saw a man and his sons picking dirt out of beans. My shock was that they ate the raw beans.
When we pass, children constantly run up to wave at the cars. When we wave back, I see two reactions, joy or shock. Here you can see the joy! The shocked ones usually just freeze once we wave back.
Back to work, the nature of our work and a lot of the information we collect remains confidential.
Picture of the team.
|Working on the field in covid-19 times|
Our work includes just listening, a lot of listening and dialogue which we do in community focus groups. If people get raped, if houses are burnt, if people's property is destroyed, when families gets separated all due to conflict, we ask many questions and collect as much information as possible to help. We speak to those responsible for these actions against the population to change their behaviour. We remind them of their obligations vis a vis the international humanitarian law (which is basically the rules of war...civilians are to be spared). We give shelter, living and food kits where needed, then we also help find missing people and reunite them with their families.
|We have sessions with weapon bearers on how they should behave vis-à-vis the population|
This woman's smile says how the ICRC has made her life much easier thanks to one of the many boreholes we built. She used to walk 1km to a fetch water from a river, but now she has portable water a few meters from her house.
|One of the villages we went to do an evaluation, look at the colour of the water!|
We gave farmers seeds earlier in the year, and were on their farms as they were showing us their growing crops. While we were there, there was a string of gun shots, I didn't realise what it was as the sound kept going off but one of my colleagues looked panicked. We had to leave the farm and get to the cars immediately.
We asked the villagers if they knew what was happening. No one was sure if a fight between armed groups had broken out, or if there was an attack. A few minutes later, someone informed us that the armed group members were firing in celebration of Eid/Sallah. So, we went right back to work.
You never know what you might meet on the road, having to push trees or chop them into pieces so we can go through, getting stuck, flat tyres, you just have to be mentally prepared for anything. Emotional stamina is as important as physical stamina for this job.
|Our amazing drivers changing tyres|
My limits have been pushed and tested in this country. I had a mental break down, there was way too much going on. I wrote Anyway and A Sound Mind at the time, and from one of these posts, I received much support from humanitarian workers like me who knew exactly what I was dealing with. One of them was a counsellor/coach who ended up working with me for free for a few months.
I see humanitarian in people's bios quite regularly and I wonder if they mix being a humanitarian worker with philanthropy...I digress!
I have just over a week in Central African Republic and as I reflect on all I've been doing, I realise how I functioned on adrenaline. I was a robot until covid-19 brought the world to a halt. This helped to slow me down just a little. As I leave, I continue to wonder when countries like CAR might move beyond total dependency on aid.
Proliferation of arms is rife here and people walking around with arms are a part of everyday living. When this is what children see constantly, naturally they grow believing that it is normal and aspire to want to carry arms some day. I've already seen children setting up road blocks, expecting to be paid for passage.
But, I still found beauty in certain parts of the country.
|A lovely church on one of my field trips|
|Over looking river Ouham|
|Getting our fill of shayi (tea) in a market for breakfast|
|I found this way of making local alcohol brilliant! Innovation at it's best.|
|This bridge in Pende was built years and years ago by Germans|
I wrote different posts during my time here. Here are the links from the most recent to the oldest. If you can read them all, it would help to put certain things in perspective.
As I leave, I wish the country peace, stability and good leadership to move the country out of this phase.